Sri Lanka’s hard-hit fisherfolk ponder their future

Fishing runs in the veins of N.G. Punchihewa, 71: his father was a fisherman and his grandfather before him.

Punchihewa’s son, too, was carrying on the tradition until the December 26 tsunami struck.

But now the 37 boats that plied the waters night and day off the southern Sri Lankan village of Thotamuna, at the scenic mouth of the Nilwala river, are lying damaged beyond repair and stripped of their nets and equipment.

The roaring killer wave swept one boat a kilometre (half a mile) up the river.

"I am suffering. I cannot believe what has happened," said the sarong-clad Punchihewa as he surveyed what was left of the village, where each boat supported four or five families directly and many more indirectly.

"All the fishermen’s houses are gone."

They were not flimsy structures, but solid brick and tiles. Still, they proved unequal to the force of the tsunami and many are flattened. Punchihewa’s house has a few walls standing but will need to be demolished.

He said he knew a deadly disaster was about to strike when suddenly the ocean receded, sucked out towards the horizon for miles. When he saw the wave rise up, he screamed at his family to run.

They were a few of the lucky who survived.

The tsunami has left about 30,000 dead in Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean island nation where thousands of families depend on fishing for their livelihood.

"This is my village. I have lived here for 70 years," said a heartbroken Punchihewa. "I have nothing to do. It’s not just me, it’s all the villagers, because they lost everything."

More than 300 bodies have been recovered in this area, squashed under rubble, drowned in their homes or washed into the palm-fringed shore. And still they float in on the relentless surf, or are carried along the river.

Sheets of corrugated iron cover the latest two bodies, an embroidered pillow case hanging on a stick marking the spot for the police, who will eventually come to collect them.

They were too disfigured for the villagers to recognise, but they hope perhaps a relative will spot the ring they gave to a loved one, or the colour of a sari wrapped around the decomposing flesh.

The clinging stink guides those still alive to the corpses rotting under wreckage that towers two metres (yards) high in some areas, a week after the disaster struck. They then inform the teams of soldiers, now focusing on clearing the area, who recover the bodies.

Often they find just a putrefying dog, cat or big fish that was swept onto the land. More than 50 people remain missing.

It will cost Punchihewa, who earned around 25,000 rupees (250 dollars) a month catching tuna, shark and other fish depending on the season, 150,000 rupees to replace his small boat with an outboard engine.

Civil engineer Chandana Galappaththi, 35, has been luckier. He arrived from Colombo at his retired parents’ home on the day of the disaster to find them safe.

He has stayed to help the village clean up and says while aid to rebuild is crucial, the fishermen want new boats and nets so they can help themselves.

"If these people have employment, they can somehow help the rebuilding themselves."

Nihal Priyanthi, 30, lost his mother and three-year-old daughter to the sea. Standing barefoot in puddles left by overnight rain now steaming and stinking in the rising humidity, he said he wanted to get back to work.

"If I can get fishing nets, I am willing to go back to fishing. I need something to start again," he said. His house, directly on the beach, is in ruins and he sleeps in what is left of his boat.

He is worried about proposed regulations to move buildings back 500 metres (yards) from the beach, far from the land that has been in his family for generations.

"This will disturb my fishing. And I have no other options for employment."

Some people however say there is no way they will stay, fearing disaster again.

B.S.P. Somawathie, 65, her long grey hair tied in a neat plait, is one of those who will head inland. She pointed to the toilet block left standing on her land — everything else is wiped out.

Somewhere far from Sri Lanka’s bloodied coastline, with her tour guide son and his family, she hopes start over again.

"I’m very sad," she said.

Most of the villagers are lodged at a crowded refugee camp set up in a college at the nearby town of Matara, where they have access to some food and are sleeping on classroom floors while awaiting help rebuilding.

Teams of South Korean sanitation workers are meanwhile spraying chemicals around Thotamuna’s streets in a bid to prevent cholera and typhoid outbreaks — the next killer threat.

Broken water pipes gurgle. Seagulls squawk. People pick over what is left.

It is a far cry from the relative prosperity these villagers are used to.

"Nobody used to seek food from others here," said the fisherman Punchihewa ruefully.

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